Unknown - not the first film by that title, not by any means, but the only one that's a Euro-thriller starring Liam Neeson - as I was saying, Unknown ends with a hokey, hackneyed twist that you can undoubtedly see in the abstract if not in the particulars from miles and miles away. I begin with this because, going into the film, I'd heard lots of chatter about its ghastly & godawful twist, and decided that I was going to make no effort whatsoever to guess what that twist was going to be, and then when it came along I thought, "Well, that was totally dumb", and returned to the business of enjoying the movie's shallow, slick pleasures. Thank God for lowered expectations.
So I say again: Unknown has a profoundly bad twist ending. Believe that. Hold on to it. It makes the whole affair a hell of a lot more fun.
Unknown is a bit of sub-sub-Hitchcockian nonsense in which an American biotech scientist, Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson), travels to Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones), for a major international conference. When he realises that he left his briefcase at the airport, he hops in a taxi and heads back, when a freak chain of accidents sends the car careening into a river, putting Harris into a coma from which he emerges four days later with only disjointed memories. Worse still, he finds that his entire existence seems to have been taken over by another man (Aidan Quinn), and that Liz has no idea who he is. So begins a quest to find out what the hell is happening, with the aide of an ex-Stasi officer (Bruno Ganz) and the taxi driver (Diane Kruger) who pulled him from the water, and has her own set of problems to deal with, what with being an illegal Bosnian immigrant and all.
It would be easy to consider Unknown a follow-up to Taken, the previous Continental thriller starring Neeson in the wholly unexpected but curiously satisfying "middle-aged bad-ass" reboot of his career. Lord knows the producers want you to make that connection. It's not quite as simple as that: Taken was chiefly an action picture driven by setpieces, while Unknown is chiefly a wrong man thriller with a few actiony bits thrown in to keep things exciting amidst all the talking. Less objectively, Taken is also a whole lot better: directed by Pierre Morel of the Luc Besson sphere of influence, it's stylishly nasty and exceedingly well-choreographed. Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, a veteran of a couple underachieving horror pictures (most recently Orphan, which everybody seems to have liked more than I did), can't muster up terribly good choreography at all: the biggest action sequence is a car chase which is clumsily shot and edited to make everything seem a bit slower than it ought to be and generally muddy up the physical relationship of the cars in question, and the handful of fights throughout are largely unimaginative. Collet-Serra is largely better at creating a mood of unease than he is at action, which works out well given that Unknown is more of a thriller than anything else, though there's not much about the film that sticks in the brain other than the suitably gloomy evocation of Berlin in the midst of a grey, snowy November.
What Unknown does have in common with Taken is a growly, intense Liam Neeson, who is, if anything, better here than he was in that picture, given as he actually has something sort of like a character to play. It is, almost without question, a cheap & disreputable thrill to see a proper actor playing the lead in a low-rent B-picture like this; but around these parts, we enjoy our cheap thrills, and as long as Neeson seems happy to prostitute his considerable skills as a thespian in the service of slick popcorn movies, then who is it hurting, really? For with Neeson, Unknown is a jolly potboiler, a lot of stupid fun masquerading as not stupid fun anchored by his inimitable presence and the threatening purr of his voice, and above all the way he has of expressing shock at the various troubles his character faces as though he's just been shot in the gut: eyes widen, mouth drops, breathing halts for just a moment. Without Neeson, I have a hard time believing that Unknown would work at all, not least because the gaseous story desperately needs the kind of gravity that a soft-spoken 6'4" tower of masculinity provides, to keep from completely disintegrating.
There are other positive considerations: Kruger's performance is all bristles and nervous energy, a captivating portrayal of a stock figure that would be perfectly fun to watch even absent the great counterpoint she makes to Neeson. I'd go so far as to to say that, given less to work with, she does more here than in her big breakout performance in Inglourious Basterds. Frank Langella has a late cameo that feels a little too much like his performance in The Box, but proves if proof were needed that there is never a point where the presence of Frank Langella is not preferable to his absence. And even if Collet-Serra isn't the most fluid and luminous of filmmakers, he keeps the tone light and the pace fleet through most of the film's middle phase, the best part, when it consists largely of Neeson wandering around Berlin and being angry at people.
Truth be told, even that much-maligned twist ending functions, in a purely mechanical way. Unlike Salt, for example, it doesn't end up feeling like we've just been maliciously lied to, and by that point in the story the film is more about the thrust of the action than the mysteries of the plot, and the action continues to be fairly, but not outstandingly well-judged. It's a lot harder to care about the people performing the action, admittedly, and not just because of the twist (by that point, January Jones's performance has descended into something clumsy and virtually unwatchable, like she was reading the script for the first time during the take) but Neeson is still there, being all intimidating, and while Unknown has taken an irreversible turn for the stupid, it's not the aggressive kind of stupid. It's just dumb fun; maybe not good dumb fun, but certainly good enough dumb fun. And in February, that's awfully damn good.
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